The Sacred Character

So, I was reading an excellent thread on Twitter about fandom’s tendency to over-analyze works, and it got me thinking about how people think about characters as real people who just happen to be in fictional books. The thread I’m talking about is below, give it a read, it’s good. Or, go directly to the thread here.

But the thing is, most of us do it, to some extent. Audiences and writers both have this sort-of magical thinking when it comes to the stories, more so for characters than anything else. Go to any random writing forum or blog, and you’ll see countless variations of “I don’t create my characters, I just write about them”. People will talk about doing character interviews or about how they had a certain plot set out, but their characters wouldn’t cooperate. In the end, it boils down to one thing, characters being some sort of inviolable outside force. I know I’ve done this on several occasions.

But why do we do it? I’ve got some ideas on that. In the thread, it’s speculated that audiences do it for control. I think that’s spot on. They think of the work as a consumer product, first and foremost, so they need to be satisfied with the product, the way you expect to be satisfied with some new piece of electronics. It either works or it doesn’t. The problem is, art doesn’t work that way. Art is subjective, and different people will interpret it different ways. But that doesn’t settle with art as a consumer product. So, to reconcile those two competing views, the idea of characters (and story) as some outside things that the author is just writing down, is born. This means that their interpretation is the interpretation, whether the author likes it or not. In a way, it’s so they can demand the author work directly for them.

For some authors, I believe the opposite is true. Magical thinking about characters is a great way for authors to abdicate responsibility for their creations. If audiences don’t like something they’ve done, they can simply say they were just writing down what the characters were doing.

By the way, I don’t think either of these things are necessarily bad. As a reader, you only have so much time in the day. You have to pick and choose what you read. If the criteria for that are characters that behave in what you consider a consistent manner, more power to you. As an author, not all criticism you receive is valid or useful. If characters as inviolable outside forces helps you weed out non-useful criticism, then it’s a useful tool. Besides, the act of creation does feel pretty magical sometimes, I can’t fault anybody for magical thinking.

Magical thinking can be a hindrance, though. Remember up there where I had an example of someone complaining because their characters weren’t cooperating? That’s the type of problem that really only shows up when you think of characters as their own people whom you can’t influence. If you can tweak basic character traits to get them to make whatever decisions you need them to make for the plot, that problem goes away. Now, some people like it when a plot changes because the characters aren’t fully within their control. It’s just how they write. And that’s great! But if you’re continually frustrated that your story isn’t going the way you want, maybe look at that magical thinking. Characters can be tweaked to get them to behave the way you want them to behave.

So, what was the point of all of this? I don’t know. I read something and had some thoughts. Those thoughts needed to be let out and I decided this would be a good place for them. Maybe I’ll do this more often here, maybe I won’t. Time will tell. Maybe this incoherent mess will be useful to somebody.